Could mass layoffs be hurting diversity?
Interviews / Opinions

Could mass layoffs be hurting diversity?


After a hiring boom during the pandemic, many big tech companies are now experiencing hiring freezes and mass layoffs. These measures are intended to cut losses and keep profit margins intact, but many are concerned they also threaten diversity in technology companies.

While they’re sometimes inevitable, layoffs don’t have to undermine your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Let’s take a look at how layoffs can impact DEI and ways you can keep diversity from taking a back seat during times of financial concern.

Why are big tech layoffs happening?

While many industries were impacted negatively by COVID-19, the tech industry saw a hiring boom. Companies staffed up quickly to meet the anticipated demand for digital solutions for the now largely remote work model.

However, as the working world settled into new working models, those perceived demands weren’t entirely realized. Tech companies, faced with decreasing revenue and likely recession, began cutting their workforces back down.

How those layoffs may threaten diversity in technology

In 2023, 454 tech companies have already had layoffs, leaving over 123,000 employees out of work. Many worry that these layoffs are disproportionately affecting women and minorities.

For instance, a lawsuit filed against Twitter claims that the tech giant laid off 57% of women in the workforce versus 47% of men.

Why the disparity?

There are a number of reasons layoffs may be disproportionately affecting women and minority employees, including:

  • Women and minorities are more likely to work in vulnerable departments. Layoffs are disproportionately affecting those in non-tech roles, like sales, HR, or customer support. The tech industry is still very much dominated by white male workers, and women and minorities tend to be a bigger percentage in the positions being cut.
  • Newer employees often get let go first. It seems reasonable to keep employees who have been with the company longer to reward them for their loyalty. But that means more recent hires, who are more likely to have been recruited during recent diversity initiatives, are more likely to be laid off.
  • DEI initiatives get pushed aside by other urgent priorities. In a booming economy, many companies emphasize DEI. Some even hire people dedicated to DEI initiatives. However, when the economy turns and the focus shifts to business survival, these efforts take a back seat to revenue concerns.

DEI isn’t an optional ideal just for when times are good. If you want to build an inclusive work culture, it needs to remain a consistent priority.

Why DEI shouldn’t be a luxury

Even when layoffs are necessary, it’s important to keep DEI front of mind as you go through the process. When women and minorities are affected disproportionately, it sets off a vicious cycle that hinders efforts to re-establish diverse workforces.

For instance, between February 2020 and February 2021, 2.4 million women left the labor force, compared to 1.8 million men. The uneven numbers can have an impact on women’s future in the workforce as more of them put their efforts into finding work rather than growing their careers and getting leadership positions.

In addition, diversity tends to be higher in entry-level roles, especially for companies in the early stages of their DEI initiatives. Hiring freezes and fears of more layoffs make it hard for companies to take on or appeal to up-and-coming talent.

Most job seekers today are looking for employers who support diversity and inclusion. If you want to keep diversity thriving in your organization, DEI shouldn’t be something that you consider only when you’ve figured out everything else.


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How to safeguard diversity in your organization

While layoffs may be inevitable at times, you can take steps to ensure your company upholds its values and supports women and minorities in the workplace.

Here are six tips for building and maintaining a diverse and equitable workplace—even in hard times.

1. Include DEI in your hiring best practices

You need to build up a diverse workforce in order to maintain it. Examine your hiring policies and procedures and make sure they include best practices like:

  • Focusing on relevant skills in the job ad and candidate evaluation
  • Considering the potential and “coachability” of candidates, not just experience
  • Actively recruiting candidates from underrepresented groups

Getting the right people on board establishes a foundation of diversity that will be easier to maintain as you move forward. It also saves you time and money in the long run by reducing turnover.

2. Maintain anti-discrimination policies during layoffs as well

Many companies already focus on diversity during the search for new hires. To uphold your values during a downturn, establish the same patterns during layoffs.

Make sure you have (HR) people dedicated to DEI on hand during the layoff decision-making processes. This may mean building a case for these roles with leadership, so they don’t see those initiatives as unnecessary expenses.

3. Train top decision-makers

Instead of just promoting your commitment to diversity and equity, make it a part of your culture by educating those at the top on how and why to embrace it. Teach executives, managers, and team leads the skills to help them be inclusive during decision-making and restructuring.

This may mean including content and courses on diversity with topics like recognizing and eliminating unconscious bias, gender inclusion, and being an inclusive leader.

If you put in the effort to build successful DEI training now, your leadership will be prepared to act thoughtfully and intentionally to preserve these values in tough times ahead.


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4. Make it standard practice to hire and promote people from underrepresented groups

Establishing a pattern of diverse hiring and promotion will ensure you have more diverse representation in critical roles within the company. If layoffs become a reality in the future, diversity won’t suffer.

Poornima Luthra shares in “Empathy and Inclusivity in the Workplace” , from TalentLMS’ podcast series, Keep It Simple, that when under pressure in hiring, quick decisions often lead to a “cookie cutter syndrome,” preferring familiar fits. We should shift to valuing “culture add” over “fit,” focusing on diverse skills that fill team gaps.

poornima luthra hiring

For instance, Slack reinforces its dedication to promoting diversity with its Rising Tides program. This six-month training is dedicated to fostering emerging leaders from groups who have typically not had access to this kind of support.

5. Offer inclusive training

Ensure diversity and inclusion efforts are reflected in every part of your organization by leveling the playing field for employee advancement. Design inclusive training programs, considering barriers that may be keeping some employees from participating fully.

For instance, hybrid or remote employees can get overlooked when you cater your training to on-site workers. Make sure everyone has access by offering self-paced, online training for employees in different locations.

Also, be mindful of representation in your courses. Do the characters in gamification elements, graphics, and instructional videos reflect the diversity your company aspires to support?

Help all employees visualize their future with your organization with training that is open to your entire workforce.

6. Communicate your commitment to diversity

Going public with your commitments makes your values clear. It also makes it much more likely you’ll stand by those promises during times of struggle.

For instance, Asana has developed a strategy to create a culture of diversity within the organization. It includes a focus on three target areas: Building on existing culture, recruiting for a diverse future, and helping all employees thrive in the present. They also publish diversity stats by department on their careers site.

Find ways to support internal DEI initiatives through special programs or targeted training. And be transparent about the results so employees, and potential employees, know your words are genuine.

Gender diversity in the workplace | TalentLMS

Diversity in the workplace is an ongoing effort

Every company will see hard times at some point in its growth. Your revenue and your workforce may suffer as a result. But that doesn’t mean your commitment to diversity has to.

If you’re prepared, you can navigate layoffs and downturns thoughtfully and preserve your dedication to diversity and inclusion.


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